September 23 2023

Prisons & political testosterone

Prisons & political testosterone

koestler-trustThere is much to embrace in yesterday’s speech by Sadiq Khan. His analysis of a failed rehabilitation revolution is accurate and succinct. Dogma has superseded evidence and deck chairs are being rearranged on the Titans. He has been candid on what he can and cannot reverse and he has agreed, as would I, with certain philosophies.

There is merit in Grayling’s plans to contract out certain ancillary services in prisons such as industry and facilities management. There is room for a mixed economy.

But we are where we are and it is essential to look forward rather than back.

So what does an aspiring Secretary of State from Tooting have to offer us if we get a labour Government?

He highlights five key priorities:

  • Strong leadership
  • Local partnership
  • A professional workforce
  • Proper accountability
  • Rehabilitation at the core

I shall save the first till last.

Local partnerships are key.

A prison system cannot be run like a Soviet Kholkozy of the 1950s, pretending that the grain harvest is on target and that the tractors never break down.

Prisons are complex and varied with each one having a unique function. It is why any attempt at managing them by league tables will be as ineffective as it would be dishonest.

A top down command structure is contrary to the concept of who we are locking up. Everyone in prison is not a rapist, murderer or a terrorist. Everyone in prison is not even a criminal. The only unifying factor of people in our prisons is that they are members of the community passing through.

Prisons take people from communities and, bar a few exceptions, hand them back again. So the active involvement of communities in what goes on inside prison and through the transition to release is essential. In my experience communities relish the opportunity but are all too often locked out, literally and metaphorically.

Out of sight, out of mind – great title for a book that – is not what communities want. After all it is they that pick up the pieces, not politicians or the media. The current Government has paid lip service to the concept of community prison simply re-naming jails as resettlement prisons rather than developing a new role and culture for them.

There may a case for a ‘federal’ prison estate holding those we are afraid of, as opposed to those we are mad at. But in the end, the vast majority of those that are initially dangerous and a serious threat to the public will become less so over time or simply too old and infirm to be a danger.

I agree with his views on a skilled workforce. As someone now teaching human rights and prison management internationally it is embarrassing to compare the nugatory training regime of staff in this country with those in countries with supposedly less enlightened penal systems.

And as a former head of the prison service’s anti-corruption unit I need no persuading of the seriousness with which corruption should be taken. But it is not just about seeking out the wrong ‘uns but having proper systems in place to vet, recruit, and train staff, to manage support and protect them in an environment which provides a perfect melting pot for conditioning and manipulation ( on both sides of the bars ).

Oversight is also key and it is refreshing to hear a UK politician talk enthusiastically about OPCAT. There are other important international protocols such as the Bangkok Rules dealing with women in prison. We urgently need a new UK prison lexicon that embraces not only the terms of such important declarations but also the fundamental principals.

HM Chief Inspector of Prisons should indeed be truly independent and appointed accordingly. Should he or she also inspect the management of prisons is a discussion long since buried. But we should also ask questions of a structure and bureaucracy that seems not to see on a daily basis what Nick Hardwicke observes every three to five years.

And who would argue with putting rehabilitation at the core of our prison system? Well, plenty actually. The danger remains that too many members of the public see prison as a place for punishment rather than as punishment and that danger increases as the political testosterone reaches fever pitch as elections draw closer.

I too, regularly quote Mandela, Churchill and Dostoyevsky in reflecting on what prisons reveal about society, but I’m not standing for election. The ban on the sending in of books to prisoners was an open goal for Sadiq Khan and I was glad to see him kick the ball into the back of the net with aplomb. The fact that the media struggled to find anyone to support the Secretary of State is deeply encouraging. All I encountered was a UKIP MEP who once played Rugby against a borstal 15, 30 years ago. This says much about a policy too far.

There can be a constructive approach to prison issues as exemplified in the ‘book ban’ and more particularly in the involvement of victims in restorative justice. Research shows that many victims get both satisfaction and closure and are much less punitive than the tabloids. But it takes political bravery to tap into such positivity.

So having largely agreed with a political figure on penal policy I am tempted to lie down in a darkened room until the moment passes.

But Mr Khan did inflict one small wound to his toes when he addressed the concept of leadership. Again he is right – damn, I’ve said it again – the revolving door of prison governors within the service as well as trapdoor (or golden ladder, depending on your point of view) to the private sector is disruptive to the management and culture of prisons.

An absolute minimum three year contact should be the norm. But if length of tenure for prison governors is an issue then politicians take it to a whole new level. Take transport. We have had eight incumbents since 2006. That’s one a year. Its no wonder we have a chaotic transport policy and can’t decide how many airport runways we want/need. Shadow roles fair little better but are less well recorded.

Many of us in the criminal justice sector will remember dialogue and discussion with the Tory shadows in criminal justice before the last election. It was constructive and encouraging and there was hope, however naive that was, that there would be improvements. Sadly, post election there was coalition wheeling and dealing, as well as debts, favours and careers to be managed. No shadow spokesperson took a substantive post.

So, Ed Miliband, what are your thoughts on continuity of leadership?